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NEW YORK – They stayed anonymous longer than Deep Throat: eight activists who broke into a Pennsylvania FBI office in 1971 and stole records proving the government was actively targeting groups that disagreed with U.S. policies — including some, like Women’s Liberation groups, whose activities weren’t remotely threatening to break the law. Building on research in a new book by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger, Johanna Hamilton‘s 1971 introduces five of these fugitive patriots to a generation busy debating the leaks of Edward Snowden. Exciting and enlightening, the still-timely film ranks with docs like The Weather Underground in its evocation of a more politically engaged era; it deserves big-screen exposure and should fare well in the nonfiction arena, though distributors may insist on a new title that would offer some sense of its subject matter.
The burglary took place in Media, Pa., a Philly suburb whose local FBI office was housed in an ordinary apartment building. The filing cabinets weren’t even locked, much less guarded around-the-clock. The thieves were ordinary young people opposed to the Vietnam War, some of whom had experienced the abuse of power while joining civil-rights protests in the South. Everyone in the circle knew that law enforcement spied on protest groups and tried to manipulate them with spies; but Haverford College professor Bill Davidon wanted proof, and eight like-minded activists, taking a vow of secrecy, agreed to help get it.
Davidon and four of his partners appear on camera here, offering a colorful and involving account of a mission that inspired draft board break-ins aimed at disrupting the war effort. Young parents John and Bonnie Raines hosted the plotters. As Bonnie recalls, it might as well have been a bridge club: They’d have dinner together, read bedtime stories to the kids and then go out to case federal offices.
Self-trained locksmith Keith Forsyth recounts the most exciting parts of the burglary, which was timed so that neighbors would be distracted by the blockbuster Ali-Frazier fight. (He and conspirator Bob Williamson would later be arrested for an unrelated action but acquitted at trial.) Having stolen every file in the office, they photocopied the most damning and sent them to three major newspapers — two of which, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times promptly returned the evidence of civil-liberties violations to the FBI. (Let’s hear it for the Fourth Estate!) At the Post, though, Medsger and her superiors ran with the story.
While Medsger recounts how these leaks became big news, former NBC correspondent Carl Stern tells how a single reference in them to the previously unknown COINTELPRO program led, eventually, to the Church Committee and the airing of much of J. Edgar Hoover‘s dirty laundry. Meanwhile, the conspirators describe the sometimes-comic, sometimes-infuriating way the Feds tried to hunt down the thieves, invading Philly’s Powelton neighborhood in numbers so large that locals held a street fair to mock them.
Hamilton makes smart use of reenactments and tells her story briskly, capturing one historical moment while easily demonstrating its relevance to post-9/11 spying and dissent. The filmmaker reports that FBI representatives have made no objection to the film’s account, and even give the Media, Pa., conspirators credit for pushing the FBI to transform itself into a very different kind of agency.
Another of this year’s Tribeca doc highlights, The Newburgh Sting, catches the present-day FBI and its agents provocateurs behaving an awful lot like they did during Hoover’s reign. But this isn’t 1971, and 21st century America has gotten used to watching one governmental outrage after another with nary a Church Committee to rein in the culprits.
Production: Fork Films, Maximum Pictures
Director: Johanna Hamilton
Screenwriters: Johanna Hamilton, Gabriel Rhodes
Producers: Marilyn Ness, Katy Chevigny
Executive producers: Abigail Disney, Julie Goldman, Gini Reticker
Directors of photography: Andreas Burgess, Kirsten Johnson
Editor: Gabriel Rhodes
Music: Philip Sheppard
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine
Not rated, 79 minutes
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